Sales of Asian art ride a philosophical wave at Christie’s

Noh masks. Cloisonné-enamels. Rinpa paintings. Lacquer boxes. Ravishing silk room dividers. Meiji art. Samurai swords and armour. Ancient tea ceremony sets. Wabi-sabiink drawings. Katsura Yamaguchi, Christie’s International Director of Japanese and Korean Art, runs through the catalogue for the company’s next London and New York sales of Japanese and Korean works and each phrase lingers in the air like a subtle perfume.
Make that expensive perfume. “In the last sale, we sold a pair of ‘Nanban screens’ for $4.8 million. It was the record price of any Japanese painting. The sale total was the second-highest ever. A Korean blue and white dragon jar went for $3.8 million.” In fact, overall Asian art sales have been in an upswing since 2008. “Actually, I have seen the paintings category escalate to achieve higher prices than ceramics,” Yamaguchi reports. “Recently, US museums have been actively buying.”
The expert also nods to a fresh regional interest in heritage coupled with major spending power. “60-70% of my last sale was bought by non-Japanese, Americans and Europeans, but the Japanese percentage is rising dramatically. For Korean art, most buyers are still Koreans living in Korea and in the US, but that’s changing too.”
The vogue might be today’s thing but Yamaguchi understands the appeal is eternal: “Japanese and Korean art is philosophical and sophisticated, simply beautiful and stunning in its decorative power. The next sales are a splendid opportunity for the next generation to define their own taste whether it’s small or big, old or new, for practical use or display. I say, ‘Find your simply beautiful’ art. And we do try to attract tyro bidders with reasonable estimates and reserves.”

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